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  • The African e-Journals Project has digitized full text of articles of eleven social science and humanities journals. This item is from the digital archive maintained by Michigan State University Library. Find more at: http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/africanjournals/

    Available through a partnership with

    Scroll down to read the article.





    Sheila Meintjes

    IntroductionThe 1993 Interim Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, with a

    justiciable Charter of Fundamental Rights, heralded a significant moment inSouth Africa's transition to democracy. In particular it shifts the parameterswithin which women are able to claim their rights as equal citizens in anostensibly 'non-racial and non-sexist' society. The inclusion of 'women' as acategory along with race in the preamble and in the Constitution itself was theresult of challenges made by women's organisations to the Constitutionalnegotiating process over the previous two years. This paper is intended to chartthat process, and to critically examine its successes and failures, as well as tosuggest how far real equality can be achieved in South Africa in the future. Thepaper begins with an evaluation of the nature of women's political organisationin the past, and the issues and demands which formed the basis of women'spolitical involvement in order to provide the context within which post-1990initiatives occurred.

    The dramatic release in 1989 and 1990 of political prisoners servinglife-sentences for their participation in actions aimed at bringing down theapartheid regime unfolded the process of negotiating South Africa's transitionto a democracy. A Women's National Coalition was formed in April 1992comprised of four regional coalitions and approximately 60 nationalorganisations. Its objective was to ensure equality for women in the newconstitutional dispensation which was in the process of being negotiated by thecountry's political parties and political liberation movements.

    The coalition emerged out of an initiative of the African National CongressWomen's League (ANCWL) in September 1991. Even before the the unbanningof the ANC in February 1990, women in the ANCWL had been concerned toplace women's position and status on the political agenda for national liberation.In January 1990 the Malibongwe Conference held in Amsterdam had broughtinternal women activists and exiles together, along with women from other

    TRANSFORMATION 30 (1996) 47


    countries to evaluate and debate the 'woman question' in a future South Africa.The theme of the conference was 'Women united for a unitary, non-racial,democratic South Africa'.1 The subsequent programme of action gave the notionof a struggle for 'non-sexism' greater prominence, and recognised that nationalliberation did 'not automatically guarantee the emancipation of women'(MalibnSwe Conference, 1990). Resolutions singled out problems faced bywomen in the rural areas, in the work-place, and the 'double shift'. Patriarchy,in combination with racial oppression and class exploitation, was seen as theprincipal cause of these problems. Thus women needed to organise themselveswithin trade unions, in civic and youth movements to wage a struggle foremancipation. Leila Patel, a member of the Federation of Transvaal Women(FEDTRAW), said in her opening address, "The struggle must be wagedsimultaneously at all three levels. The question of the emancipation of womenis therefore integral to our national democratic struggle'. The perspectiveoutlined in her address suggests a much more self-conscious understanding thatin order to emancipate women, a starting point had to be the material conditionswithin which women lived their lives: 'The point of departure is to start withwomen's needs and their level of understanding of their reality and to move attheir pace'.

    The ANCWL was relaunched in August 1990 in Durban, an event criticisedfor the pre-eminence given to male comrades, and questioning the movement'scommitment to women's emancipation. This contrasted rather uneasily with theANC National Executive Committee's statement on May 2, 1990 about theANC's commitment to full equality between men and women (ANC, 1990).Within the ANC a small but politically astute group of feminist women had in1987 forced the movement to acknowledge the fact of gender oppression. OliverTambo's now famous statement gave this commitment a high profile.2 FreneGinwala saw the May 2nd statement as a further means to 'help push open doors'{Agenda, 1990:18). Discussion between the ANC and government during 1990and 1991 progressed beyond 'talks about talks' to agreement about formalnegotiations. In this process women felt sidelined, and it was feared that, as inother transitional situations, women themselves and the particular problemsfaced by women in society would be ignored. Women in the ANC then felt thatan independent women's voice was needed to ensure that women's issues wereaddressed in the negotiations process. They decided to work through theANCWL and the newly established Emancipation Commission.

    In September 1991, the ANCWL called together women's organisations acrossthe political and ideological spectrum to raise concerns about the neglect ofwomen's issues amongst the country's leaders. There was a need to establish a

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    broad-based women's lobby which spanned the social, political, and ideologicaldivides to ensure that this neglect was not entrenched in a new politicaldispensation. In particular, the ANCWL wanted the Constitution to reflect acommitment to equality between men and women. The meeting, attended byrepresentatives from political parties and a wide range of women's organisationsestablished a broad principled agreement on this objective, as well as the generalacceptance that women experienced subordination in society. They agreed thata coalition, rather than a new organisation, was the best means of achieving thisend.

    The launch of the Women's National Coalition (WNC) in April 1992, afterwidespread consultations and preparations, was an historic moment. It sawwomen from different class backgrounds, race groups, political parties, fromdifferent kinds of women's organisations including the Church, welfare and thehealth sectors, rub shoulders with one another. They found much to agree uponin the search for common experiences, although their commonalities were basedupon a recognition of the diversity of culture, race and class. It is to thesedifferences to which we must look to understand the incredible achievement ofthe WNC. That National Party women and the ANCWL sat together and debatedthe need for a coalition of women's interests was short of a miracle.

    The experience of segregation and apartheid had created great gulfs betweenwomen from different race, class and ethnic backgrounds. Even working classwomen from different race groups had little in common in a society which hadbeen predicated on racial identity. The migrant labour system and influx control,the labour preference system and job segregation by race and sex had created adifferentiated labour market and a social system entirely geared to maintain it.3

    Social movements had arisen early in the century to confront the inhumanity andinjustices of the whole system. The circumstances of the emergence of thesemovements varied, and were dictated by the specific problems of the times.Whilst one can call the Industrial and Commercial Union of the 1920s a socialmovement, the issues it focused upon were different from those of the socialmovement unionism of the 1970s and 1980s. Strategies and tactics differed.

    In the 1950s and 1980s significant women's organisations emerged dedicatedto ending apartheid and oppression. The 1950s Federation of South AfricanWomen was linked to the Congress Movement, which, though its affiliatescomprised racially exclusive members, the objectives were to create a non-racialsociety. In the 1980s, the organisations which emerged were themselves explicitynon-racial. In both periods, these were not feminist movements in the sense thattheir concerns were merely the ending of women's subordination. Their objectivewas to mobilise women for the general struggle against apartheid, whilst also

    TFW4SFORMATION30(1996) 49


    introducing a women's perspective into that struggle. Their strategies includedpublic and militant protest. There existed also a host of women's organisations,like the Housewives League (Women's Institutes), the National Council ofWomen, and welfare organisations whose concerns were more limited topromoting domesticity, or improving the legal and social position of women.They eschewed, and opposed, public displays of protest.

    During the 1950s, popular struggles took on what one might call a 'mass'perspective, in that for the first time the African National Congress (ANC)systematically, through its Programme of Action, attempted to draw in supportfrom the labouring classes.4 The organisations which had emerged to opposesegregation and racism had formed along racially exclusive lines, reflecting theghettoisation of people's lives. Indian, Coloured, African and White5 opponentsof government policies of racial segregation and white privilege formed theirown organisations, although they increasingly acted in concert on specific issues.Women were equal and very active participants in the organisational strugglesof these years.

    The National Party government, still entrenching its power in the country'sstate apparatuses during the 1950s, was well in control by the end of the decade.In the 1960s, repressive control was forcefully applied to steer South Africa onits path to preserving white domination. Apartheid policies gradually imposedmore systematic controls over the residence and movement of black people.Freedom of association and of political organisation were severely curtailed asthe National Party's stranglehold intensified. The ANC and other oppositionalorganisations were banned and driven underground in the early-1960s. In 1983Tom Lodge suggested that the political tranquility of the 1960s was aconsequence of increased police vigilance combined with the silencing of aradical press and official regulation of peoples's lives (Lodge, 1983:chapter 13).Broederbond visionaries spearheaded their apartheid planning in every aspect oflife, justifying it with their 'separate but equal' ideology.

    The political costs of establishing the administration and controls of theapartheid system became more evident in the 1970s, as mass strikes and popularstruggles began to occur. Colonialism had in large measure given way toindependence throughout the colonial world. The 1973 strikes heralded a newphase in the organisation of an independent trade union movement. And after the1976 Soweto uprisings by schoolchildren there emerged a stronger impetus forinternal oppositional social movements to organise against apartheid. Tradeunions grew in support and in organisational discipline. Student movements withstrong links to the unions emerged. In the townships, civic movementsconfronted the structures set up by government to govern life in urban areas. The

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    ANC in exile found itself swamped with young men and women seeking to joinits ranks. By the end of the decade South Africa's rulers faced more organisedpopular resistance than ever before. This was compounded by the fact that theANC in exile had, during the 1970s and 1980s, established itself as a governmentm exile, with a sophisticated international support network. A stronginternational lobby was established which supported boycotts of South Africanproduce and the imposition of an arms embargo. Government intransigence andrepression of what appeared to be legitimate demands of the oppressed were tomake South Africa a pariah in the international order.

    South Africa had a long tradition of opposition to colonialism, both amongstAfrican chiefdoms and kingdoms, but also, ironically, amongst differentAfrikaner communities. The Boer war had been fought to prevent Britain fromimposing its control over independent Boer Republics, which were also thehomeland of several chiefdoms, and, perhaps more significantly, thegeographical location of the largest gold deposits in the world. After 1910,African people left out of the political negotiations were both bitterlydisappointed and angry. The South African National Native Congress, which hadformed in 1912 with the unification of regional African political organisations,was one of the most vociferous in opposing the political exclusion of the Africanand other peoples. They petitioned the monarchy in England, and sent adelegation to argue their case. Participants were all men. Women were excludedfrom the political activities of these organisations. Women's concerns wereconsidered to be in the realm of the'private' whilst public matters were theconcern of men. Referring to one of the earliest militant protests of women inBloemfontein in 1913, a study by Julia Wells shows, however, how in protectingthese interests, women were 'strikingly brave, bold-political', their militancysurpassing that of men (Wells, 1993:1). In 1913 African women in Bloemfonteinprotested against their being forced to carry passes. The unity and sanctity offamily life became symbolised in the icon of African women as the'mothers ofthe nation'. Women's self-sacrifice was to give courage and devotion to the menwhose responsibility was to take a public stand in the cause of politicalinclusivity. A few years later, Afrikaner women were also prompted to protestas 'volks-moeders' in a huge demonstration at the Union Buildings, when oneof the heroes of the Boer war, General Christiaan de Wet was imprisoned fortreasonous activities at the outbreak of the First World War (Brink, 1990:280).

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    Brief History of Women's Struggles in South Africa: issuesand organisation

    White women in South Africa began organising politically for the franchise asearly as 1894 with the Franchise Department of the Women's ChristianTemperance Union (WCTU), and more systematically with the formation of theWomen's Enfranchisement Association of the Union (WEAU) in 1911 (Walker,1979). Its members, all white, never questioned the racial exclusiveness of thefranchise, and indeed accepted the differential qualifications which existedbetween the northern provinces and the Cape Province (Walker, 1990b:314).These gave the vote on the basis of education and property, excluding womenand all but a tiny minority of Coloured and African men in the Cape. There waslittle support for the women's franchise, despite the fact that the WEAU's politicsprovided further support for white domination.

    Afrikaner women had kept out of the franchise debate, and the National Partyhad been viciferously opposed to it. However, in 1923, afraid that the issue mightleave them behind, leading Nationalist women endorsed the inauguration of theWomen's National Party (Walker, 199Ob:333). Their position was captured inthe words of Mrs EG Malan, quoted in Cherryl Walker's study,'With regard towomen's suffrage, they must ensure that if they get it the best men come to thehead of affairs. Nationalist women must be organised. They must know onelection day for whom they must vote' (Walker, 1990b:333).6 The campaign forthe vote for women then became tied to excluding black women. 'Die vrou wilnie saam met die kaffer stem nie', announced the Transvaal region of theWomen's National Party (Walker, 1990b:335). The final acquisition of the votefor women in May 1930 constituted a paternal triumph, as well as a racist one,for it was a nail in the coffin of the African vote in the Cape, and of course itexcluded all black women.

    The 1913 women's protests against passes in Bloemfontein was one of theearliest campaigns led by politically organised urban-based black women. Passeslimited and regulated the independence of African and Coloured women. Womencomplained about the abuse they were subjected to by police and municipalofficials (Wells, 1993:chapter 2). They had organised a petition signed by over5,000 women from all over the Orange Free State to the Minister of Finance (whoalso held the portfolio of Native Affairs) about the indignities they suffered as aresult of the pass laws. A deputation of six women visited Cape Town in April1912 to press the issue. National ministers were sympathetic, but at the local levelthere was a singular determination to implement pass regulations. Matters cameto a head in May the following year when considerable numbers of women were



    arrested for contravening the pass laws. This provoked on-going passiveresistance from women all over the Orange Free State. They formed anorganisation called the Orange Free State Native and Coloured Women'sAssociation which gathered support from the African People's Organisation (amainly Coloured organisation based in the Western Cape) as well as the S ANNC.The issue continued to simmer for several years, though the First World War sawa moratorium on protests by Africans in support of the war effort. It explodedagain in 1919, and was linked to issues of wages and the cost of living.

    The militant opposition of the women of Bloemfontein had provided aforewarning of how deeply resented were the pass laws. Indeed, it was theiractions which determined that women should be excluded from the restrictionsimposed on male migrants and workers in the Native (Urban Areas) Act in 1923.Women's militancy was to dog any attempts by municipal authorities to enforcepasses on women. Indeed, any threat posed to their ability to maintain family lifeoften led women into passionate and militant political action. Their capacity tomobilise has given African women in South Africa an aura of power andmystique. Paradoxically, women are also conceived as the most exploited andoppressed members of society.

    Under customary law women were denied adult status, and were subject tomale control. The migrant labour system had given women in rural areas greaterresponsibility for ensuring the maintenance of subsistence production and for theupbringing and welfare of children. This placed a much greater burden onwomen. Yet women in rural areas were in many ways more disadvantaged thantheir counterparts in urban areas. They were directly affected by the authority ofchiefs and customary law. As minors in law, women could not own or inheritland or moveable property nor could they gain credit. Their access to means ofsubsistence depended upon their subservience to a chief and attachment to a malerelative or spouse. Also significant was that whilst motherhood gave womengreat responsibilities, it did not provide women with rights over their children.Instead, custody and guardianship over children rested, in theory, solely withmen. In practice, however, women found multiple ways of asserting theirindependence, and of protecting themselves within the parameters of traditionand custom. Educated women in particular were able to escape the worst aspectsof male control.

    It was three decades before any government attempted again to impose passeson women. During the 1950s, the National Party government began to implementits plans to more systematically canalise African labour and control who couldlive in the urban areas. More an ideology than a grand plan, apartheid developedpiece-meal (Posel, 1991). Plans to impose passes on women were again mooted

    TRANSFORMATION 30 (1996) 53


    as part of a strategy to limit African urbanisation. And when the National Partygovernment did so in 1952 with the Abolition of Passes and Coordination ofDocuments Act, m e v o n c e m o r e unwashed the ire of women.

    In 1952 women from trade unions and various political organisations discussedthe need for a new women's organisation to address women's grievances andtheir rights. These discussions resulted in the formation of the Federation ofSouth African Women (FSAW) in 1953. Membership of the FSAW was basedon organisational rather than individual membership (Walker, 1982:chapter 11).Its objectives were to improve the conditions under which women lived in SouthAfrica. The opening Conference in 1954 drafted the Women's Charter whichestablished the principle of full equality with men and challenged genderstereotypes. Cherryl Walker in her important study of the history of women'sresistance in South Africa suggests that the aims of the new organisation were'far more sweeping it its proposals than any put forward by other contemporarywomen's organisations' (Walker, 1982:159). The delegates were quite explicitthat their task was not merely to mobilise women for the programmes of theCongress organisations. They 'wanted to expand the scope of women's workwithin the national liberation movement' (Walker, 1982:159). Twenty yearsbefore women's lib, the organisers persuaded men to do the catering at theconference, a factor noted by the newspapers which reported on it!

    The Defiance Campaign had forced the government to shelve plans in theearly- 1950s to enforce passes for women, but in 1954 and 1956 these were againon the agenda. This time the state was more determined that it should limit furtherurbanisation, and that it should do so by halting the influx of women. For thestate, it was imperative that women's mobility be contained and that they carrypasses. So from the moment of its inception, the FSAW directed its energiesalmost entirely to anti-pass campaigns. Its organisational capacity was constantlythreatened by coercive state action against its leaders, many of whom werebanned. Another difficulty was the relationship between the Federation and itsaffiliates. The ANCWL was somewhat wary of the FSAW, and had insisted onorganisational rather than individual membership. However, the mid-1950sproved to be decisive in terms of resistance politics in general. The Congress ofthe People held at Kliptown in June 1955 provided an opportunity for the FSAWto participate equally with other organisations in drawing up the FreedomCharter. This ensured that issues of concern to women were reflected in theCharter. These revolved around living conditions, but extended to education,health facilities as well as emphasising the issue of equality with men in social,political, legal, and economic matters.

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    The government also moved to disenfranchise the African and Coloured votersin the Cape. To do so they increased the numbers of senate members. A groupof women then formed an organisation called the Defence of the ConstitutionLeague in 1955. Comprised of a small group of white liberals, membershipremained small and middle class. Few black women were induced to join.However, as its emphasis became more and more focused on human rights issues,a number of black women were drawn in as employees to assist in the work ofadvice. Advice Offices served an important support function for people facingthe consequences of apartheid laws and repression. The Black Sash, as it cameto be called, closely monitored the consequences of legislation, and held periodicpublic, silent and individual protests. Its members wore the distinctive black sashassociated with the name of the organisation, they held placards identifying thecause of protest. During the 1980s, the Black Sash also turned its attention toassisting communities under threat of removal when it formed the TransvaalRural Action Committee (TRAC). In 1985 TRAC joined up with similarorganisations from other regions to form the National Land Committee. Duringthe late-1980s and early-1990s women's issues became an issue in theorganisation as a new generation of younger women informed by feministconcerns became active members. The Black Sash, through its field workers inTRAC, in particular Mam'Lydia Kompe, became a moving force in assisting theestablishment of the Rural Women's Movement. Though small in numbers, theRWM has been important in giving voice to the problems and needs of ruralblack women. It has called for a review of customary law and practices, and inparticular has advocated the right of women to inheritance and to land ownership.

    During the 1980s, as youth and civic movements grew in numbers, so the needfor an organisation to articulate the needs of women emerged. Non-racialregional women's organisations sprang up from 1981. The United Women'sOrganisation (UWO) in the Western Cape was one of the first of a new generationof organisations to espouse and practice a systematic non-racial and cross-classperspective.7 A number of its members were former FSAW and ANCWLmembers, like Dorothy Nyembe and Mildred Lesia, the latter had cut her politicalteeth in the trade unions and the ANC, and Amy Thornton, a white activist in the1950s. But the driving force in the organisation were younger women, who drewinspiration from the past traditions of the FSAW, but who were very consciousof the different political conditions pertaining in the 1980s. For instance, the issueof membership was clear, it was to be on an individual basis, which would allowfor all progressive women to join. However, there was also an understanding ofthe difficulties such a broad-based membership could have. Thus a principle of

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    the organisation was that members should not belong to other women'sorganisations. This stricture did not affect union membership or membership ofcivic structures, but it posed dilemmas for women who belonged to the BlackSash for instance.

    The branch structure of the UWO was the subject of considerable debate. Therewas concern that residential area branch organisation would simply reproducethe separation imposed by the group areas act. This was overcome by theinclusive Council structure, to which the executive was accountable. Each branchbecame an arena for the empowerment of women: there they built confidenceand learned about conducting meetings, taking minutes, engaging in discussionand establishing their own area programmes based on their specific needs andinterests. Each member had the opportunity to chair meetings and takeresponsibility for minutes and organising meetings. Every member had theopportunity to represent her branch at the fortnightly Council meetings. Thusbranch initiatives were balanced with the issues raised in the executive, and theregional programmes which emerged from the Council discussions anddecisions. The UWO built a close-knit, efficient and effective organisation bythe time the United Democratic Front (UDF) emerged in 1983, and was able totake up issues and act upon them quickly. Meetings were frequent and wellattended. The objectives of the UWO were to mobilise women in the struggleagainst apartheid, and to bring women's interests to bear on the wider movement.

    With the establishment of the UDF the organisation was faced with a dilemma:it had built up a strong leadership cadre, but it was not so strong that it could dowithout them. Yet it was imperative that its leadership be part of the UDFleadership core. Indeed the departure of leaders like Cheryl Carolus to the UDF,and the involvement of women in UDF branch structures, did in fact weaken theeffectiveness of the UWO. An Organising Group was set up to try and counterthese problems. But it became very difficult for women to attend branchmeetings of both. In the later-1980s, as both resistance and repressionintensified, members of the UWO and other UDF affiliated organisations wereincreasingly detained for long periods.

    Women's organisations in the other provinces took somewhat longer toestablish themselves, and neither the Natal Organisation of Women (NOW) northe Federation of Transvaal Women (FEDTRAW) achieved the effectiveorganisational strength of the UWO. This was partly a reflection of the differentpolitical conditions pertaining in the different regions, and partly to do with thestrength of other organisations, like civics and youth organisations, whichattracted the support of politically motivated women.8 It reflected, too, a limitedconcern and understanding of gender relations and the subordination of women

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    in the anti-apartheid straggle. The debate about the relationship betweennationalism and gender oppression was not part of the discourse during the1980s. Where the issue was raised at all, discussion did not go beyond the divisiveeffects which such a problematic might introduce into opposition politics. Thiswas only to become an issue in the 1990s, once a feminist perspective began tobe articulated by women within the ANC itself.

    Women's Response to Political Change: nationalism andtransformation

    The unbanning of the liberation movements transformed the whole texture ofpolitics in South Africa. Instead of clandestine meetings, covert membership,and armed struggle, the ANC, PAC and other political organisations were ableto enunciate their political principles and recruit members openly. An area oftension did arise in respect of what would happen to the UDF and its affiliateorganisations. What was the relationship of the ANC, still a movement ratherthan a political party, to the internal movements? This dilemma also faced thewomen's organisations around the country. One key dilemma related to the needfor women's organisations to remain autonomous. One of the lessons learnedfrom Mozambique and Zimbabwe was how the incorporation of women'sorganisations in the state had demobilised women's initiatives. Would dissolvinginto the ANCWL fetter that independence? The re-launch of the ANCWL as anautonomous organisation aligned with the ANC seemed to put these concerns torest, for the regional organisations did in fact dissolve and join the League.

    For the ANCWL, a major issue was that of translating the commitment of theANC to women's emancipation into a reality reflected in leadership positionsand treating women as equals. Frene Ginwala, a senior member of the ANC inexile, deputy head of the ANC s Emancipation Commission and head of the ANCResearch Department before she was elected to Parliament in 1994 and madeSpeaker of the House of Assembly, also a strong feminist, suggested that therewas a growing understanding within the ANC of 'gender oppression' as astructural condition. To transform this, radical change is required.9 Ginwala'shand is widely believed to have drafted the May 2 NEC statement on the'Emancipation of women in South Africa'. This took the movement'scommitment beyond its previous position of simply mobilising women for thestruggle against apartheid. In the past, although women's oppression wasrecognised in agreement about women's triple oppression - class, race, and sex- dealing with the latter was to wait until the first two had been solved by thedissolution of apartheid. This last perspective is reflected, for instance, in the

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    pages of the African Communist, mouthpiece of the South African CommunistParty, which argued that women's oppression was a 'subordinate, lessantagonistic contradiction' than that of race or class oppression (Clara,1989:118)- However, the 1990 Statement committed the ANC to includingwomen's oppression as an integral part of the struggle for liberation. That afundamental restructuring was in order was reflected in the commitment totackling 'the material base, the legal system, the political and other institutionsand the ideological and cultural underpinning of gender oppression now and inthe future'. It acknowledged that affirmative action would have to rectify'patterns of discrimination'.

    Whilst this statement reflected the sophisticated understanding of leadershipin the ANC, there was little discussion of the statement in the newly establishedbranches ofthe movement. Thus at the ANC July 1991 Conference, the ANCWLpushed for a quota system in the NEC. Although the majority of the 2,000delegates did not support the proposal for a quota, the debate was conducted withintensity. The process which resolved the quota debate was lengthy andemotional. Not a single member of the NEC spoke in favour of the quota, andthe ANCWL had underestimated the conservativism of the broad membershipof the ANC, including many women who also voted against the quota (Horn,1991:37). Mary Turok quotes Nelson Mandela after the Conference: 'I can saywith all confidence after that debate, and after the women had demonstrated theirintensity of feeling on this issue, the ANC will never be the same' (Turok,1991:9). The ANCWL conference in Kimberley in 1991 was more sober in itsunderstanding of how great was their task to conscientise and educate peopleabout the oppression of women. The conference elected Baleka Kgositsile to thekey post of Secretary General. She recognised that women's liberation was 'notan automatic thing, but it has to be fought for by women' (Daniels, 1991:35).For some time the League had been debating the issue of drawing up a Women'sCharter. But, crucially, the League also argued that it should reflect the demandsof all South African women: 'it is an issue for all South African women, not justANC women, although the League will have to spearhead the campaign', saidBaleka Kgositsile (Daniels, 1991:35). In September the League called the firstmeeting to propose an alliance of women's organisations to launch a 'Chartercampaign'.

    The Women's National Coalition and the Charter CampaignOn September 27,1991 the first of a great number of conferences, workshops,

    seminars and consultations was held with 30 women's organisations to discussthe aim of drawing up a Women's Charter of equality. At this meeting the

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    delegates found common interests and concerns on a number of key areas. Theyagreed on the fact of gender oppression and that in diverse ways it affects allwomen in South Africa. They agreed, too, that fundamental changes musteliminate not only racism, but sexism also. Frene Ginwala's opening addresspin-pointed the objectives of the Coalition: 'Women will have to make sure thatthe constitution goes beyond a ritualistic commitment to equality and actuallylays the basis for effective gender equality'. When the WNC was launched at aConference in April 1992, it had 60 national organisations and four regionalcoalitions affiliated to it. By February 1994, when it presented the 'Women'sCharter for Effective Equality' to a Women's Convention, 90 nationalorganisations and 14 regional coalitions were members.

    The WNC approached the matter of diversity with sensitivity. Whilstrecognising that women shared subordination and oppression, their experiencesin every-day life differed according to their material circumstances. Middle classwomen and working class women, black and white, Christian, Hindu, Islamicwomen saw and experienced life very differently. This recognition of differencewas what in fact made possible the coalition of women across such a broadideological and political range. It moved away from the essentialism which haddogged feminist initiatives elsewhere in the world.

    But there were problems in coming to agreement about the structure of theCoalition and its relationship to member organisations. Fears were expressed thatthe WNC might impinge on the autonomy of organisations, whilst a numberfeared the dominance of political parties. The number of voting delegates alsocreated tensions, with smaller organisations resisting being swamped by morenumerous, politically-aligned groups. Once these problems were resolved, theobjectives of the Coalitions were hammered out. The WNC was mandated bydelegates at the launching conference to organise a campaign to consult withwomen throughout South Africa about their problems, needs and hopes for thefuture. It took many months for a programme, funding, and an office to conductthe campaign, to be set up.

    During this whole process, the country was in crisis. Violence had escalatedto unprecedented proportions, and the high-profile media campaign envisagedby the WNC to highlight its objectives was somewhat side-lined. At the sametime, members of the executive and the steering committee were also involvedin the negotiations of CODESA as advisors and lobbyists. The ANCWL, forinstance, was engaged in a critique of the terms of reference of the workinggroups set up at CODESA. Women's caucuses of the different political partieswere also angry at the paucity of women on the various delegations. Thecombined pressure of the women led to the establishment of a Gender Advisory

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    Committee (GAC) at CODESA. But the violence led to the breakdown ofCODES A just as the GAC was getting off the ground. When the second roundof talks, known as the Multi-Party Talks, began in March 1993, the WNC hadestablished its national office and campaign strategy, and was sufficientlyorganised to set up a monitoring process which worked very effectively indeed.

    The Negotiations Monitoring Team provided reports and information to theWNC member organisations (Albertyn, 1994). Its work made possible the mostsignificant intervention of the WNC in the constitutional process. This was overthe question of the equality provisions in the Bill of Rights, to which traditionalleaders objected. Chief Nonkonyana led the assault on equality for women byseeking the exclusion of customary law from the purview of the Bill of Rights.He also sought recognition of the powers and status of chiefs. There was an outcryfrom the women's caucus and members of the WNC at the compromise. TheANCWL felt that its own party was compromising women's position, and alsocompromising the notion of equality. The debate was aired on radio andtelevision, and gave the WNC much needed publicity. The final outcome wasthe removal of the offending compromise clause.

    Meanwhile, the WNC launched its programme to educate and elicit women'sdemands for the Charter. This process went hand in hand with a nation-wideparticipatory research project.10 Members of the WNC regional coalitions andorganisations were trained in focus group facilitation. Questionnaries weredrawn up on the monthly campaign themes to elicit women's views. The researchand campaign eventually got underway in July 1993. The idea was that theresearch should be owned by those involved and that it should also be anempowering process. A pilot project revealed that the methodology of focusgroups was an effective way of enabling women to voice their feelings withoutfeeling uncomfortable or intimidated. This was followed by research by aprofessional research company as a comparative 'test' of the findings conductedby the WNC. In every instance, the findings of the WNC were confirmed bythose of the professional research company. The analysis of the research wasconducted by a team comprised of qualitative and quantitative analysts andresearch interns from University and research NGOs. The outcome of theresearch was a two volume study analysing the findings which came from themultiple research methods undertaken during the campaign - chain letters,questionnaires, demands made at meetings and conferences, and the focusgroups. The latter were based upon a mapping exercise undertaken by threeresearchers: Debbie Budlender (who conceptualised the research process for theWNC), Moira Maconachie (a member of the RSG) and Milla Macloughlin (fromthe Development Bank of South Africa). The mapping identified the regional,

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    racial, cultural and linguistic demography of women in South Africa. Researchattempted to interview women on a sample based on this distribution. It isestimated that the campaign and the research reached more than two millionwomen in the country. The findings of the research formed the basis of the'Women's Charter for Effective Equality' which was initially drafted bymembers of the research team. The draft was presented to the February 1994Women's Convention, and then revised by a committee set up by the conference,including the original drafters.

    It was envisaged that the Charter would perform a dual function. It wouldreflect the diversity of demands of South African women. It would thus be apolitical document around which women's organisations could mobilise and actin their own chosen ways. Some hoped that the Charter could become the focusfor the mobilisation and organisation of a strong and effective women'smovement in South Africa. Since the release of the Charter (it was first releasedin draft form in February 1994, and in its final form in June 1994), this hope hasnot been realised. Part of the reason for this lies in the very diversity of interestsinvolved in the WNC: there has been little to hold a sustained movement together,apart from the recognition of diversity.

    Women's capacity to work together depends upon mobilising around unifyingissues, and since the elections, these have not emerged in a way to engage theWNC. The WNC elected to continue its existence in order to popularise and takeforward the aims expressed in the Charter, but it has been characterised byleadership problems and lack of money. The leadership capable of drawingwomen together on a national level has been sucked into Parliament, whereenergies have been dispersed in national politics and the tasks of the moment,rather than in fighting the gender struggle.

    However, a small caucus of Parliamentarians have made significantinterventions which have received considerable publicity. Accompanying theBudget, was the launch of a 'Women's Budget'. Work commenced by the WNCduring the period of its campaign with respect to national machinery for ensuringwomen's substantive equality and opportunities in government and society hasin recent months also begun to come to fruition, thanks to the efforts of womenwithin government and in Parliament. Gender desks within regional governmentdepartments are being established in some provinces. Significant, too, is theestablishment of the Office of the Status of Women in the President's Office. Itstask will be to monitor the progress of women's position in society. A furtherwelcome development is the Bill to establish the Gender Commission, whichappeared in the Government Gazette recently.

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    The second purpose of the Charter had envisaged influencing the shape of thenew Constitution, law and public policy. In this area, the Charter and the WNChas played an important role. The acceptance of the notion of effective equality,which points to the areas of women's experience of civil society which preventstheir enjoyment of equal rights with men, was acknowledged by PresidentMandela when the completed Charter was presented to him in August 1994.

    Effectiveness of WNC and the Charter for Women's InterestsHow effective have these organisational realignments been for women's

    interests? The effect of the campaign dramatically altered the visibility of womenduring the height of its campaign from June 1993 to February 1994. This hadsignificant effects on the negotiations for a new constitutuion, particularly withrespect to women's representation and with respect to ensuring that women'sinterests be protected by the Bill of Rights. The campaign involved mobilisingthe media, initiating education workshops around the country on the themes ofwomen's legal status, access to rural and urban land and resources, violenceagainst women, health and work, as well as conducting the research.

    The campaign transformed the profile and discourse around women and genderrelations. It gave substance to the shadowy notion of 'non-sexism' and assertedthe importance of women's particular disabilities in the debate about humanrights in South Africa. Changes in the law have subsequently outlawed rape inmarriage, offered protection from domestic violence for women, and illegaliseddiscrimination against women. These changes signalled the success of women'scampaigns for their rights even in the private sphere. The WNC campaignengaged the whole of South African society in questioning its norms aboutwomen's status and women's citizenship.

    The Charter has been used as a touchstone for the needs and demands of womenin South Africa in policy prescriptions and in legislation. The GenderCommission, which was one of the structures agreed upon in the interimConstitution, will be set up by the end of 1996, a move which had seemeddoubtful as legislation did not see the light of day until recently.

    Yet the WNC has not turned out to be the long-hoped-for women's movementwhich could sustain the struggle for women's emancipation. It decided tocontinue its existence to implement the Charter it had drawn up, but was besetwith organisational and leadership problems. The elections saw its leaders troopinto Parliament en masse, and the coalition of organisations do not seem to haveproduced the collective will to take on the implementation of the Charter. Instead,what has transpired are a series of campaigns around burning issues which havenot been led by the WNC. The most crucial area of concern for women has been

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    that of violence, both against themselves and in the country at large. Yet the WNChas been unable to provide any lead as to how to prioritise this, or any other issueof immediate concern to women. At the same time, whenever the problems ofwomen's subordination or oppression are raised, there is a general recognitionthat without a women's movement in civil society to press for change the futurefor women looks bleak. Either the WNC will have to readdress itself to the taskof finding the issues which will generate the commitment and support it needsto create that movement or it will simply fade out, much as earlier women'sorganisations did. The secret of mobilising women is in finding those issueswhich affect them most, in the particular conditions of their lives.

    NOTES1. Papers of the Malibongwe Conference are held in the Library, Centre for Applied Legal

    Studies, University of the Witwatersrand.

    2. See discussion '"Picking up the Gauntlet": women discuss ANC Statement', Agenda, 8, 1990.

    3. See Posel (1991) for a thorough discussion of this process.

    4. See Lodge (1983) for a full discussion of popular struggles during this period.

    5. The Population Registration Act defined South Africans in terms of their colour. Thisterminology is used in this paper in capital letters rather than the rather more cumbersomeuse of inverted commas.

    6. Translated by Walker from the original in Die Burger, March 2, 1923.

    7. The following section is based upon my own experience in the UWO, to which I belonged from1981, its inception, until 1984, when 1 left Cape Town to live in Natal. There I joined theNatal Organisation of Women in 1985.

    8. The history of women's organisation during the 1980s remains to be researched and written.

    9. See Ginwala's contribution to the discussion in Agenda, 8, 1990.

    10. The author was a member of the Research Supervisory Group and co-ordinator of the overallresearch process.


    Agenda (1990) 'Issue focus on "Women and the ANC", 8.

    ANC, (1990) NEC 'Statement of the National Executive Committe of the African National

    Congress on the Emancipation of Women in South Africa, May 2nd 1990'.

    Albertyn, C (1994) 'Women and the transition to democracy in South Africa', in Gender and the

    New South African Legal Order, Johannesburg: Juta.

    Brink, E (1990) 'Man-made women: gender, class and the ideology of the volksmoeder', in C

    Walker, 1990a.

    Clara (1989) 'Feminism and the struggle for National Liberation', in African Communist, 118.

    Daniels, G (1991) 'ANC Women's League: breaking out of the mould?', in Work In Progress, 75.

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    Horn P (199') 'ANC women's quota: the debate continues', in Work in Progress, 77.

    Lodge T (1983) Black politics in South Africa since 1945, London: Longman.

    '"Picking UP ' ^ Gauntlet": women discuss ANC Statement', (1990), in Agenda, 8.

    Malibongwe Conference (1990) 'Programme of Action', Conference Resolution, Amsterdam.

    Posel D (199') The Making of Apartheid 1948-1961: conflict and compromise, Oxford:

    Clarendon Press.

    Turok M (1991) "The women's quota debate: building non-sexism', in Work in Progress, 76.

    Walker, C (1979) The Women's Suffrage Movement in South Africa, Communications no. 2,Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town.

    Walker, C (1982) Women and Resistance in South Africa, London: Onyx Press.Walker, C (1990a) Women and Gender in Southern Africa to 1945, Cape Town: David Philip.Walker C (1990b) "The women's suffrage movement: the politics of gender, race and class', in C

    (1990a).Wells J ( ' 993) We now demand! The History of Women's Resistance to the Pass Laws in South

    Africa, Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.

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